Skip to main content

They All Loved Lucy

July 2024
8min read

Among the blades beneath her sway Were Holmes and Lincoln, Booth and Hay

In every social group, from the local high school to the international jet set, there is likely to be one beautiful girl whose power over circumambient males goes mysteriously beyond anything that can be pictured or described. After the catalogue of her virtues and beauties has been recited to the end, there remains something ineffable; and that something is what enslaves her admirers. When such a girl moves in high circles, she is bound to attract men whose names one day will mean something in history.

Few in America’s past can match the record of Lucy Lambert Hale, the younger daughter of John P. Hale, one of New Hampshire’s Civil War senators. Lucy was born at Dover in 1842. She was pretty and precocious, sweet and good; but it wasn’t until she budded into womanhood that her real charm began to be felt. When she was only twelve she was receiving fond poems from a Harvard freshman named Will Chandler. ( Chandler, William E. , 1835-1917. Secretary of the Navy, 1882-85; U.S. senator from New Hampshire, 1887-1901.) She responded with a girlish “crush,” but four years later Chandler married Caroline Gilmore, the daughter of the governor of New Hampshire. By that time Lucy was full-blown, with clear skin, large blue eyes, dark hair, and a stunning figure. Her manner toward men was of a mode that cannot be taught or learned: a subtle brew of flattery, teasing, and cajoling; of rapt attention disturbingly laced with hints of indifference and even, now and then, a touch of cruelty.

One of the first to get the full exposure was eighteenyear-old Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., son of the famous poet-physician and a sophomore at Harvard in 1858. ( Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. , 1841-1935. Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1902-32; “the great dissenter.”) O. W. H. met Lucy while vacationing in Biddeford, Maine, and started writing her love letters as soon as he got back to Cambridge. They are refreshingly expressive of the character that a half century later would make itself so well known in Supreme Court opinions:

Cambridge, April 24th 1858

Dear Miss Hale:

. . . After leaving you at Dover ... I was not extremely voluble and for the next three days at home I am sorry to say I was so cross that no one could come within a mile of me. . . . What a disappointment it was to hear that you were not coming to Boston. . . . But do you enjoy yourself at Hanover (nunnery)? [Lucy was at boarding school in Hanover, New Hampshire.] College is perfect delight, nothing to hold you down hardly, you can settle for yourself exactly what sort of a life you’ll lead and it’s delightful—one night up till one at a fellow’s room, the next cosy in your own, in the days boating etc. and not too hard (as a general thing) lessons. . . . Please tell me all about your life there—being of a slightly jealous disposition the regulation about riding with young gentlemen affords me huge satisfaction. . . . Please give my respects to all the young ladies at Dover & thereabouts but to none of the male species. . . . Your aff. friend,

O. W. H. Jr. . . .

P.S. I appreciate the meaning of the perfume and shall take the first chance to follow its invitation.

Lucy answered soon, but not soon enough to satisfy Holmes, and not ardently enough, either:

Cambridge Apr. 30th

Dear Miss Hale (need that formality be kept up any longer?)

This morning I got your letter—as you can imagine to my great delight. . . . Now I shall proceed to analyse it. First—“correspondents”—How many young gentlemen do you keep going at once on an average? It is not so agreeable to reflect on the various rivals who are at the same time receiving as great or greater ? share of the imperial favor—

. . . Finally I am a little incredulous about your complete ignorance of my meaning—Nevertheless, was not that perfume (for if it wasn’t it was of the same nature) the “Kiss-MeQuick”? Does that explain? I shall not give the love sent either to the young gentleman in question nor any other as I prefer retaining it for my own use—And as to my request in the [railroad] cars, I will hold you to your promise. I ask for a lock of your hair also. . . . Do you remember the baths the walks the night on the piazza & the last night, & more than all the cars? And yet you write “ Mr. H ”—I don’t know the gentleman. ...

The record does not reveal whether Lucy ever granted the tantalizing “request in the cars,” whatever it was, but at any rate she did arrange to transfer to a boarding school in Boston where she could be near Holmes—and all the rest of the Harvard students. It would seem that the competition was too heavy to suit O. W. H. and that his enthusiasm waned accordingly; yet lovely Lucy may have been in his mind when, in 1861, he was badly wounded in a Civil War encounter and wrote afterward: ”... one of the thoughts that made it seem particularly hard to die was the recollection of several fair damsels whom I wasn’t quite ready to leave.”

Among the collegians who hovered about Lucy in the social carrousel of Boston and Cambridge was Robert Lincoln, the oldest son of the man who was soon to become President. ( Lincoln, Robert Todd , 1843-1926. Secretary of War, 1881-85; United States minister to Great Britain, 1889-93.) Too retiring and perhaps too shrewd to actively join the crowd of Lucy’s pursuers, young Lincoln nevertheless admired her and was to remain her good friend for many years. A pleasant insight is offered by a paragraph Lincoln added to a letter that his Harvard roommate, Frederick Anderson, was in the process of writing to her one day in April, 1864. (Lucy by then had joined her parents in Washington, D.C.) Anderson left the room for a few minutes “to quell a disturbance” across the hall; when he got back he found that Lincoln had picked up the pen and written:

Mr. Anderson informs me that he has invited you to our Class-day. If you will promise to be good and not allow any freshman to be presented to you, I have not the slightest objection in the world to your accepting his invitation. . . .

In wartime Washington Lucy lived at the National Hotel with Senator and Mrs. Hale and her sister, Lizzie. Soon she was engrossed in work with the Sanitation Committee, the Red Cross of the day, but there was still lots of time for pleasure. Washington was gay and bright in the evenings; Lucy was seen at many parties and dances. During lulls in the fighting she even visited the front lines with her mother, once riding into Virginia in a horse-drawn ambulance accompanied by Captain O. Wendell Holmes, who was stationed nearby.

Meanwhile, Lucy’s strangest love affair was in progress. On Valentine’s Day, 1862, she had received a curious epistle:

My Dear Miss Hale

Were it not for the License which a time-honored observance of this day allows, I had not written you this poor note. . . .

You resemble in a most remarkable degree a lady, very dear to me, now dead and your close resemblance to her surprised me the first time I saw you.

This must be my apology for any apparent rudeness noticable.—To see you has indeed afforded me a melancholly pleasure, if you can conceive of such, and should we never meet nor I see you again—believe me, I shall always associate you in my memory, with her, who was very beautiful, and whose face, like your own I trust, was a faithful index of gentleness and amiability.

With a Thousand kind wishes for your future happiness I am, to you—

A Stranger

It is easy to imagine the effect this romantic communication—romantic even for its era, which was itself romantic—must have had on twenty-year-old Lucy, especially when she discovered who the author was. (It hardly needs saying that he followed up the note by making certain that she did discover who he was.) It was none other than John Wilkes Booth. ( Booth, John Wilkes , 1838-65. Actor; assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.) Already at twenty-four acclaimed one of the finest actors of the day, Booth had an allure for women, on and off stage, that was really formidable. His performance as Romeo had caused ecstatic flutters from Chicago to Boston and Washington; in Indiana a jealous actress had assaulted him with a dagger and then tried to kill herself with the same weapon. He was outrageously handsome, and his manners made the most of the courtesy and flourish typical of the antebellum South, which he devoutly admired.

Booth suffered from no lack of feminine company, but his approach to Lucy was undoubtedly quite different from his usual gambit. He was determined to marry her, and it is only fair to assume that as their acquaintance grew he fell genuinely in love with her—although, of course, marriage to a prominent senator’s beautiful daughter would have been, for an actor, a social step decidedly upward. The evidence seems to indicate that Lucy succumbed slowly but surely. By March of 1865 they were often seen together in public and were in fact engaged, although secretly. On March 17 “Johnnie’s” mother, Mary Ann Booth, wrote him: The secret you have told me, is not exactly a secret, as Edwin [John’s brother] was told by someone, you were paying great attention to a young lady in Washington . . . and if the lady in question is all you desire—I see no cause why you should not try to secure her. . . . Her father . . . would he give his consent?

By this time Booth was heavily involved in his plot to kidnap Lincoln—a plot that miscarried and thus gave rise to the assassination plan. There is no suspicion that Lucy knew anything of this, but there is some indication that the lovers were quarrelling in the spring of 1865, perhaps as a result of Booth’s distracted behavior and his fits of jealousy. (Asia, his sister, reported later that Johnnie had become enraged at the sight of Lucy dancing with Robert Lincoln one night at the National Hotel.)

On March 4 Booth attended President Lincoln’s second inauguration with a ticket of admission given to him by Lucy, who had it through her father. On April 14, the day of the assassination, Robert Lincoln came back from Appomattox, where as a member of Grant’s staff he had been present at Lee’s surrender; it is believed that he and Lucy and another of her admirers, John Hay, studied Spanish together that afternoon. ( Hay, John , 1838-1905. American diplomat and author; President Lincoln’s assistant private secretary; ambassador to Great Britain, 1897-98; Secretary of State, 1898-1905.) The President had recently appointed Lucy’s father ambassador to Spain, and she was getting ready to go along. Whether this affected Booth’s mad determination to kill Lincoln is not known, but it may have been an added spur.

The dreadful event at Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14 put an explosive end to Lucy’s romance with John Wilkes Booth. She found it nearly impossible to credit that her lover had been the assassin, and her feelings were not assuaged by her father’s desperate efforts- including published notices in the press—to deny that there had ever been an intimate connection between them. “I have had a heart-broken letter,” Edwin Booth wrote his sister, “from the poor little girl to whom he had promised so much happiness.” Meanwhile Booth was captured and shot in Virginia—he was carrying photos of five women, including Lucy—and his co-conspirators were tried and found guilty in a highly irregular trial. One of the irregularities was that Miss Lucy Hale was never called to the witness stand. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was running the show, had no desire to upgrade the conspirators by revealing Booth’s relationship with her.

Five years abroad enabled Lucy to suppress her unhappiness amidst repeated rounds of legation parties, trips to Italy and Switzerland and France, and rejection of love-struck noblemen who courted her elaborately and were turned down without much ceremony. In Paris she saw the sights and went to the theatre with several of her old beaux: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Frederick Anderson, John Hay.

But when she returned to America in 1870, Lucy was no longer the fresh young girl who had so moved the hearts of most of the young men she met: she was twentyeight years old and apparently determined to devote herself almost exclusively to the care of her ailing father, back in Dover, New Hampshire. He died in 1873—and then, suddenly, Lucy began to respond to a bombardment of passionate love letters from William E. Chandler, her very earliest admirer, who was now a widower and a highly successful corporation lawyer. They were married late in 1874, and the former belle, now a handsome young matron, plunged spiritedly into politics at her husband’s side. (The only child of the marriage, a son, was not born until 1885.) They were to enjoy several years in Washington among old acquaintances during Chandler’s service as Secretary of the Navy and as a senator, and many years after that in the quieter atmosphere of Concord, New Hampshire. Chandler died in 1917; Lucy had preceded him in 1915.

Among all of Lucy’s notable swains John Hay seems to have most sensitively expressed her peculiar charisma during her time of youth and beauty. From Madrid he wrote her in 1869: I came back from the station [the day you left] wondering if there were anyone else in the world just like you; one of equal charm, equal power of gaining hearts, and equal disdain of the hearts you gain. The last glance of those mysterious blue-gray eyes fell upon a dozen or so of us and everybody but me thought the last glance was for him. I have known you too long. Since you were a school-girl—yet even in those early days you were as puzzling in your apparent frankness and real reserve as you are today. . . . You know how I love and admire you. I do not understand you, nor hope to, nor even wish to. You would lose to me something of your indefinable fascination if I knew exactly what you meant. . . .

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.